You can't get much more extravagant or awesome than the palace at Versailles
, a place guaranteed to revise your ideas on stately homes. Part museum, part bare shell, part reconstructed palace, it is unlike anywhere else you'll ever visit.
The palace stands on a slight slope, its railings re-gilded as part of a recent refurbishment. They provide a striking entrance to the cour d'honneur, the three-sided front courtyard. You can just imagine the people of Paris clamouring at the gates and Marie-Antoinette's famous pronouncements.
Gilded railings in front of the palace
Built by Louis XIV, the Sun-King, it was designed to outshine anything ever seen before and housed up to 20,000 people. Later it was home to the last Louis, husband to Marie-Antoinette. These three eighteenth-century figures ensured that they created one of the most opulent and excessive palaces you will ever visit.
When the revolution started in 1789, the palace was ransacked and its contents sold off around the world. Now that it is a heritage property, the French authorities are trying to reclaim anything surviving. Downstairs the palace is a museum, with paintings and exhibits in gallery format. Upstairs, the state apartments are slowly being recreated.
The royal bedchambers are particularly magnificent. There are two for the king (public and private), providing part of the daily ritual. The railings kept courtiers in their place, as the waking, washing and dressing were all carried out as a public ceremony.
The king's bedroom
Signals were to demonstrate that the king would be visiting the queen overnight, including leaving his pillow on her bed, before using the secret interconnecting doors. Her chamber was more private, but as childbirth was equally ritualised, you again see the gilded railings.
Dining was almost as ritualistic. The royal couple dined in public on specific days, watched by they courtiers. The dining room is therefore unexpectedly vast for a small table.
The royal dining room
Religion was a major part of palace life and the chapel is consequently magnificent. In Palatine style, it is spread over two storeys, with space for the royal party upstairs, and others below. The last part of the palace constructed under Louis XIV, it is suitably splendid, with richly painted ceilings depicting both Old and New Testament.
Another magnificent state chamber is the Hall of Mirrors. One side of is covered in mirrors, reflecting the glitter and giving the whole room a bright, expansive atmosphere. The original silver design was by the artist Charles Le Brun, whose influence is felt throughout the room, with paintings of Louis XIV's reign on the ceiling to add to the opulence.
The Hall of Mirrors
The Hall of Mirrors leads to the private chambers, and beyond the queen's room is her staircase. Unlike the simpler marble staircases in other parts of the palace, this staircase is ornate, a sumptuous display of Marie-Antoinette's extravagant taste.
The Queen's staircase
Beyond the royal apartments is a wing which houses, on the upper floor, a long war gallery. Here large paintings depict the various battles in which French soldiers have engaged. It's a remarkable historic record.
The war gallery
As the sun sets, the gilded front with its pink stone glows warmly. This sumptuous palace really is the sun-king's masterpiece.
The palace front
Whether you're interested in Louis XIV and his cult of personality, or the poignant tragedy of the weaker Louis XVI and his (in)famous wife, or indeed the palace's afterlife, Versailles is worth a visit. In addition, it houses temporary exhibitions, most recently one on eighteenth-century furniture.
Entry costs are reasonable, and I would recommend getting the pass to the whole site, and staying two days. The palace is huge, so be prepared to walk large distances. There is significant security on entry, and you are required to leave large bags behind. Inside there are plenty of facilities, with gift shops offering everything from affordable items to grand luxurious extravagances. There are a couple of cafes and a reasonable number of toilets. The labyrinthine palace would not be easy to navigate with a wheelchair or pram. There are some good resources to help children engage with the site. The easiest way to get there is by train from Paris.